How sitcoms deal with politics and journalism

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The world is a little confusing these days. Questions can be tough and answers can be as nebulous as they can be hard to find. Not only that, but no one can agree on who to ask anymore.

One of the more obvious places to turn to is, or was (or maybe just ‘should be’) news media. Its job after all is to inform people, but recently it seems faith in news media has slipped a great deal. I’m not saying that journalists shouldn’t be under scrutiny, but this doesn’t feel like scrutiny so much as mindless cynicism.

I don’t think anyone would deny that we’re at somewhat of a focal point in this issue. But it’s certainly not a new idea. We should be able to trust the people that feed us our news, but the idea that we can’t has been a fixture in our culture for a while. I’ve noticed this even in a few sitcoms that I’ve been watching lately, particularly shows that deal with politicians. Quite a few of these kinds of shows have stories in which politicians and journalists seem to be working against each other, rather than together for the people they serve.

Parks and Recreation is a pretty well-known example, so let’s start there. The Pawnee Journal’s Shauna Mulwae-Tweep was a regular since the show’s first season and she’s been a source of annoyance for the Parks and Recreation department from the start. Political satire is common and often biting, but Parks and Recreation stands out because the main characters are (mostly) good people trying to do a good job, surrounded by lesser people who impede them. Pawnee’s news media has always belonged to the latter category, and Tweep isn’t the only culprit. Joan Callamezzo, another series regular, gives herself the title of ‘journalist’ and is often scoffed at for doing so by main character Leslie Knope. Between these two figureheads of media in the show, they work to single handedly derail every good idea Knope has. Tweep is always on the lookout for an excuse to pen a damning headline and Callamezzo always has misleading figures or irrelevant-but-seemingly-damning facts on hand to make the Parks department seem like they’re in the wrong.

My point here isn’t that this kind of journalism doesn’t happen, simply that this is always the angle the show seems to take when addressing the news. Journalists and news media are always portrayed by the show as being the enemy of good government work, turning people against good ideas by any means necessary.

The attack isn’t always against journalists, though; sometimes it’s against everyone. Let’s move away from Parks and Recreation’s collection of generally well-meaning people to the angry, incompetent buffoons that populate The Thick Of It. In one episode of the show, a department of the British Government accidentally wipes a huge amount of personal data, right before a press release that was intended to showcase how well everything is going. Some time after the official interview, a politician mentions to a journalist (believing themselves to be off the record) about the data wipe. From this point the episode becomes about desperate attempts to stop the information from getting to the public.

I have a few issues with that. For one, every single person in this scenario is conniving, and working only in the interests of their career. The journalist just wants a big story to break, the politicians just want to cover themselves, when the reality should be that both parties are working for the sake of the wider public. The tone of The Thick Of It is, in general, bitingly cynical, but there’s not even a smidge of competence or good-naturedness anywhere in the show.

It’s hard to really define the real problem I have here; I think satire is a good and important thing. I think people in positions of power (whether political or social,) should be held accountable and I think that there are a number of issues in society that are a result of the unethical use thereof. I absolutely think that the problems these shows (and many more) explore exist and should be discussed. However, I don’t think pointing and laughing at ineptitude and immorality does quite enough. For all of Parks and Recreation’s optimism about good people with good ideas ultimately coming out on top, it’s never portrayed journalists as anything other than a hindrance. While The Thick of It portrays everyone in that sort of light, it’s not doing any better; the idea that no one is doing anything to help people isn’t much more helpful.

Again, it’s not that these problems don’t exist. Politicians can be greedy and self-serving. Journalists can be ineffectual and have the completely wrong focus. But constantly pointing and laughing at the fact that this happens, in my opinion, doesn’t really do anything to stem that tide. It certainly doesn’t encourage either party to be better. Sitcoms don’t have to become the bastions of social change by any regards; I’m not necessarily sure I’m even saying that they’re an issue, but I think it’s worth discussing the attitudes they present to us and how those attitudes might effect our own perception.

Maybe, though, none of this matters and television doesn’t tell us anything about how people feel. All I’m saying is that we’re at a point in time where people are giving up on journalists and that we’ve been joking about their ineptitude for years. Might have something to do with it.

 

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